British Pub & Restaurant Etiquette: the honest guide for visitors

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While in the UK, you may find yourself wondering about British pub etiquette as not everyone is familiar with how they operate or the overlap and differences between pubs, bars, and restaurants in the UK.

So many people who are visiting the UK are eating out a lot, particular if you’re staying at a hotel without kitchen facilities and will want to know UK restaurant etiquette and British pub etiquette.

Flamebread on a table

And that’s a good thing!

London has a ton of culinary delights to explore in pubs, restaurants, and street markets across the city.

Just don’t be that person making a fool of themselves by waiting for hours at the pub for a waitress to come to your table – more on that soon.

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Hey! Want more pub and restaurant guides? Check these out!

Restaurants in London and the UK

Restaurants in the city function much like they do elsewhere – it’s often good to make a reservation if you know of a popular one you want to try out, but there are tons of restaurants all over so you’ll never have a hard time finding somewhere to eat if you’re flexible.

London restaurant etiquette says that when you go into a restaurant, wait at the front for a moment if no one is there as someone will come to greet you and ask how many are in your party.

Once you’re seated with your menus, the British culture starts to kick in.

people talking in a cafe

“Good service” here is not a waiter who constantly comes up to your table and asks if you’re ready, but one who gives you plenty of time to chat and relax throughout your meal.

Dining is an experience and a social event, not just a means to an end.

Your waiter should come back in a decent amount of time to take your orders once decided, but don’t be afraid to make eye contact and put your menus down to show that you are ready to go.

In the UK, appetizers are called “starters,” entrees are called “mains” and desserts are called “puddings.”

fish and chips on a plate

This should help you navigate the lingo your waiter or waitress uses when trying to explain the best British food in London!

You often will just order your starters and entrees and then desserts will be a later order once you have finished.

Once your orders have been taken, it’s time for you to settle in and get cozy.

Starters will obviously come out first, then after enough time to let you enjoy, they will be cleared and your mains will be brought out.

Image: River Cafe, London. Ungry Young Man. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

One tip and essential part of dining etiquette in England to follow is to show your waiter that you are finished, whether it’s a starter, main, or dessert, is to put your fork and knife (or spoon) together on your plate side by side.

people in a restaurant

This is the polite way to show that you are finished with that course.

If you leave your utensils askew, the waiter may leave your plate for quite some time as they think that maybe you are still working on it or going to try someone else’s food, etc.

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Do you have to ask for the check in London/the UK?

Once you have finished with your entire meal and all of its courses, you will need to ask for the bill (called a check in some countries, but a bill in the UK).

Your waiter will usually not just bring you the bill, as that is seen as rude and rushing you.

When it comes time to pay, you should also know that tipping is not mandatory in the UK, and a tip of around 10% is more common if one does tip.

man pulling credit card out of wallet

Waiters and waitresses earn a living wage and do not rely on tips to help bridge a gap – this is one of the things many people don’t know about London – though of course they do appreciate it.

Sometimes, the tip will already be added as a “service tax” to your bill, so check for that before paying any extra.

Pub Etiquette in London

A pub is a center of social life in London, not just for people who drink but for couples, families and friends.

It does not equate to a bar, as though it does have a bar, it doesn’t share the same “late into the night” atmosphere of a bar.

Sherlock Holmes pub

Pubs are usually family-friendly places (yes, including children in the daytime) and many people go to the pub to eat, rather than to drink.

Most pubs in London close about 11pm and are used throughout the day from lunchtime for people to grab a bite to eat and some drinks if they want to.

It’s not even uncommon for a business meeting to be held in a pub if it’s a casual one.

Etiquette wise, it’s important to know how a pub operates so you understand pub etiquette in the UK.

churchill arm pub
Image: Churchill Arms. Geoff Henson. [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr

You seat yourself in a pub, so when you go in, just find a clear table or space and sit your party down.

Menus may already be on the table, or you can get one from the bar.

When you’re ready to order, take note of your table number if there is one and go up to the bar and place your food and drinks order.

store in London

No one will come around to get your order like in a restaurant.

Once you’ve ordered and the food is out, someone will come bring you your food and any utensils, as well as probably asking once if there is anything you need.

After that, it’s up to you to go ask for it.

Image: People in a pub. oatsy40. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

When you’re finished eating, London pub etiquette says you can leave your dishes on the table and someone will clear them, but again, they aren’t there like a waiter or waitress to consistently see that you’re doing okay.

They are more functional – there to deliver food and the basics, and then clear your table at the end.

Other British Pub Tips (for drinkers)

Image: Carpenters Arms Pub London – 2. Andrew Nash. [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Send Up One Person at a Time

Because everyone needs to order at the bar, it can get very crowded.

One of the best tips for navigating British pubs is to send up one or just a couple of people at a time to put their orders in from your party.

You don’t want to have a group of 7 standing around at the bar trying to all get attention, and you’ll overwhelm the staff less and get through it faster if you just send up 1 or 2 people at a time.

Make Eye Contact with the Bartender

It’s the bartenders job to see who is waiting to be served. You don’t need to shout, wave your hands around wildly, or draw intense attention to yourself.

Simply position yourself at the bar and go for the eye contact with the bartender. Holding your card out, ready to pay, can work as well, but they know why you’re there. A bit of friendly eye contact will get you served as soon as they are able.

Image: Cutty Sark. Geoff Henson. [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Buy in Rounds

If you’re out with British locals, you might find that they purchase drinks in “rounds.”

This means that one person buys drinks for the whole table, and then the next person, and so-on and so forth, instead of everyone buying their own individual drinks all of the time.

This is a great way to make friends, participate in the local culture, and works well if you’re drinking similar amounts to everyone else.

If you don’t drink or would prefer to not be involved in the “rounds,” simply decline and get your own drinks.

Don’t accept a drink bought for you by anyone else (as that would be unfair if they buy for you and you don’t buy for them), and you’ll be fine.

Be Specific when You Order

Don’t just ask for a “beer” or a “cider” when you order at a pub.

Know what you want – you can ask for recommendations or say “give me your best cider,” but there are tons of different types of beers, ales, ciders, etc at a pub and the bartender needs to know what you actually want.

Do you tip in pubs?

Image: Yummy!. John Grishin. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Because there exists no waiter or waitress in a pub, you do not tip in a pub.

There may be a small tip jar at the bar, but it is not expected.

Save your hard earned cash and spend that money elsewhere in London!

Bars in the UK

Image: Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental in London. Heather Cowper. [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Bars do exist in the UK, but the difference is that they wouldn’t serve food like a pub does and they are much more adult-oriented and for going out at night.

Whereas most pubs don’t have age requirements or only start them at a certain time, a bar would be an 18+ (the drinking age in the UK) establishment.

UK Travel Planning Guide: the FAQs

🏥 Should I buy UK travel insurance?

Absolutely yes. Basic coverage is not expensive, and as a visitor you are NOT covered under the NHS. Compare policies and prices with Travel Insurance Master here, a big name in the travel insurance business, and cross that off your list.

🔌 Do I need travel adapters for the UK?

Yes, you do, otherwise you won’t be able to plug in your electronics/phone/lifelines. I recommend this one, which is all-in-one so you can use it in other countries.

🚗 What do I need to drive in the UK?

The first thing you need to check out if you’re planning on renting a car in the UK is this guide to driving in the UK for visitors – the roads, signs, and driving experience will likely not be what you’re used to and it’s essential to prepare yourself to stay safe and aware.

🛌 What’s the best way to book hotels in the UK?

For UK hotels, Booking is the best site as it offers free cancellation on many properties. If you want an apartment, I always recommend VRBO over AirBnb.

📳 Will my phone work in the UK?

Yes – if you set it up right. Check out my guide on making your foreign phone work in the UK to ensure that you get the type of service you need.

🚿 Can I drink the water in the UK?

Yes, UK water is great and perfectly safe. But drink out of taps in any kitchen or use water fountains. Double check before drinking out of the taps in hotel bathrooms, though, as they may be on a different system.

2 thoughts on “British Pub & Restaurant Etiquette: the honest guide for visitors”

  1. It’s been years since I’ve been to London, and much has changed! Your tips are very helpful. I do have a question. Since we’ll be using public transportation, I am trying to figure out the difference between a Visitor Oyster card and a Travelcard. We will be staying 7 days. Thanks again

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